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Profiles in Excellence.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition -- Design with a Purpose

By Joan Leotta

Induction ceremony
NSCIA executive director and CEO, Marcie Roth, congratulates Senior Producer Diane Corman and Executive Producer Conrad Ricketts on the induction of Extreme Makeover Home Edition into the SCI Hall of Fame.

Photo courtesy of National Spinal Cord Injury Association (NSCIA) www.spinalcord.org

Wish you could make your home more disability friendly simply by waving a magic wand? Granted! In our very real world, ABC television's show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition provides just such magic every week. On each episode, designers, contractors and several hundred volunteers transform a house and a family's life in only seven days, at no cost to the family.

In that week, the show accomplishes what would ordinarily take at least four months and several thousands of dollars to complete. Each self-contained episode features a race against time to totally rebuild an entire home—every single room, plus the exterior and landscaping—for a deserving family.

These changes are not simply cosmetic upgrades or repairs. They often make the difference between a home that was inaccessible to one that allows the entire family, even those with a disabilities, to enjoy a comfortable and safe environment.

From the opening shot featuring host Ty Pennington's trademark “Good morning!” greeting that awakens and surprises the selected family, through all the pounding and hammering and up to the emotional moment when the family sees what they have been given, viewers are invited to follow the transformation process.

Each episode requires careful research and planning to determine what features the new home will have, where the family will go during the remodel, how the surprise will occur, when the family will move back into the home, and how the improvements will make life easier and more fun for each family member. Companies such as Disney, Hilton, and Marriott have all donated accommodations for families, providing week-long trips to Disneyland, Disney World, and even as far away as London.

At 13 million US viewers strong, the show gives a high profile to disability issues. After each episode airs in the US, it is broadcast to 69 other countries across the world. On the show's website abc.go.com/primetime/xtremehome/ episodes may be seen at any time, further expanding the audience base.

Family selection

Families who want to be considered for the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition submit a video, complete an application, and mail both to the show's producers.

According to Senior Producer Diane Korman, about 60% of the applications come from community leaders—clergy, mayors, neighbors, school teachers, counselors, non-profits—who nominate deserving families. About 30% are self-nominations, and the rest come from children who nominate their families.

Korman notes that program staff members check to make sure each family in the final stage of consideration really meets the criteria of being in need. She says, “We seek families who are truly desperate for our help, who have done everything they possibly can on their own, but are in trouble.” After these extensive background checks, she relates, “we often know more about them than they know about themselves.”

Memorable Choices

Among the show's 126 episodes produced so far, Korman lists several in particular that stand out. The Akers family from Cincinnati, for example, were nominated by 24,000 of their friends and neighbors— the most nominations for a single family the show has received to date. Greg and Ginger Akers are parents to two girls, Brooke, 7, and Faith, 4, who have spinal muscular atrophy, a life-threatening condition. Son Christian, 11, was recently diagnosed with Crohn's disease.

Brooke's 200-pound wheelchair was too large for use in the family home. The youngster was mostly bedridden, carried by her mother when necessary. As a result, Ginger has already suffered a hernia. Due to their medical bills, the family could not afford to renovate or relocate.

Another episode that Korman remembers fondly featured the Hughes family from Louisville. Korman relates: “Patrick Henry, age 19, was born blind and without the ability to fully straighten his arms and legs, leaving him unable to walk.”

But Henry was also apparently born with determination. “Despite circumstances that seem overwhelming, Patrick Henry has exhibited extreme strength and a positive attitude to achieve his goals,” Korman continues. “He is an amazing pianist, having played since he was nine months old, and excels at the trumpet and singing. As a part of the Louisville School of Music Marching and Pop Band, he tirelessly—with help from his father—maneuvers his wheelchair through the formations with the other 220 plus band members.” Featured on ESPN , Good Morning America , and other programs, and a 2006 recipient of the Disney Wide World of Sports Spirit award, Henry is, in Korman's words, “a true inspiration to both those his age and to adults.”

Partnering

Korman reveals the show's guiding design philosophy for accommodating special needs: “People with disabilities should be able to go and do everything in the house that other members can do on their own. Cooking, bathing, opening doors, turning on the television, talking to guests and standing up—and the show's crew uses the latest technology to make those things happen, whatever the disability.”

To better help each person, the show often partners with local or national groups to learn about the disability and to further improve the lives of each family.

Korman points out that the learning goes two ways. “The work has been a learning process for the crew as well as the audience,” she says. “The crew has learned that people with disabilities are just people who happen to have special needs.”

Korman says, “In the fifty states, we have worked with both national and local non-profits to design, build and construct the home.” Some examples of groups that they have worked with include:

  • Homes for our Troops (HFOT), a national private, non-profit organization that seeks to assist in housing for disabled American veterans;
  • The Gibson Foundation, which advances education in music and the arts; and
  • Life Rolls On, a non-profit that, in various ways, provides hope to young people whose lives have been affected by spinal cord injuries.

HFOT has not only consulted with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on house ideas but also helped build the family home of Luis Rodriguez, an army medic. The Gibson Foundation donated instruments to the Hughes family, and Life Rolls On showed a staff member how to surf, then helped him design surfboards for Kristina Rippati in her family's episode.

Recognition

This year marks the show's fifth on the air. Highlights of the 2008 season include an “all-green” build in Arizona and green elements in every episode, with eco-friendly, low-energy, and recyclable sources incorporated into the builds.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has received accolades from the entertainment industry and the disability community alike. The show earned two Emmy awards for Outstanding Reality Program, the People's Choice Award for Favorite Reality Show/Makeover, and the Family Television Award for Best Alternative/Reality Program.

So warm is the show's reception within the disability community that in 2007 the National Spinal Cord Injury Association www.spinalcord.org nominated it for the Spinal Cord Injury Hall of Fame. K. Eric Larson, NSCIA's Chief Operating Officer, praises the show for including technology and equipment above and beyond what viewers might expect.

“Because of their huge audience,” Larson says, the program “not only directly enhances the lives of each family involved but also helps to spread awareness to their viewing audience across the globe.”

What earned the show its 2007 SCI Hall of Fame nod? Two things, relates Larson: “One is the real human impact of the actual work they do, combined with the large numbers of people they reach with a very real and dignified message about people with spinal cord injury.”

Feedback

Korman notes that, by and large, audiences love the families that appear on the show and the volume of fan feedback is high. The ABC website offers fan the opportunity to interact via a community message board, blogs and more.

For example, in season two, a two-part episode aired featuring the Vardon family, which includes deaf parents, a hearing teenager, and a blind/autistic son who loves to explore outdoors—even if it means sneaking out at night. The family's primary concerns were not furniture and accessibility but safety, communication, and high-tech security. After those episodes aired, Korman says, “We also started to get letters specifically from groups that represented disabilities thanking us for portraying them in a positive light—that was really cool!”

The future of the program looks good. Says Korman, “When I started on this show, it was for five episodes. Now, it has been five years. I feel very blessed to work on a show that makes a difference and feel honored to be able to help families have the American Dream.”

Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.

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